Have you ever found, either while falling asleep or waking up, that you can’t move your body? Maybe you were both inside a dream and outside of it, unable to move or defend yourself. Sleep paralysis can be scary, but it’s not something you need to be too worried about.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is just what it sounds like – the inability to move your body while you’re asleep. In this temporary state, you can’t move your muscles, react, or speak.
Sleep paralysis generally goes along with REM sleep. In this sleep state, we experience most of our dreams. It makes sense that we can’t move, so we don’t disrupt our partners, hurt ourselves, or get in some kind of trouble while acting out a dream. Thus, sleep paralysis protects us from ourselves.
However, sleep paralysis can spill over into the periods where we are just falling asleep or just waking up. This is when it scares us because we can’t move or speak when we think we should be able to. Sometimes, the dreams spill over, too, so we confuse our waking and sleeping worlds.
People who struggle with sleep paralysis as they are falling asleep are simply remaining alert as the body gets ready to enter REM sleep. This is called predormital or hypanogic sleep paralysis. Those who struggle with it as they are waking have post-dormital or hypnopompic sleep paralysis. They are alert and awake before their REM cycle is completed.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Most people who experience sleep paralysis are genetically predisposed to it. This means that it can run in families. If someone you’re related to has problems with it, you are more likely to struggle, too.
Sleep deprivation can also cause sleep paralysis. When you’re excessively tired, your brain struggles when it moves in and out of sleep. It’s harder to make these transitions cleanly when your brain is exhausted, so it may confuse waking and sleeping more often.
People who have migraines, anxiety, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy are all more likely to have bouts of sleep paralysis. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why these conditions cause sleep paralysis, but people with them are definitely more likely to struggle with it.
Sleep paralysis may be caused by extra vigilance somewhere in the mid-brain. Many people who experience the condition wake up in a panic, sure that there is someone in the room or that they are in danger and cannot fend it off. Somehow, the vigilant part of the brain senses danger and wakes the person, even while the dream state and paralysis continue. Researchers are looking deeper into this mechanism, to see if they can tie sleep paralysis more closely to this anxious response.
What are the Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis?
When in a state of sleep paralysis, a person is unable to move. They may also see what seem to be visions, which are their dreams extending into waking life. These sessions can last a few seconds, a few minutes or, very occasionally, a few hours.
The person will feel like they cannot move, but they are not completely paralyzed. In fact, their eyes continue to move during these episodes, even if the rest of the body, including the vocal cords, cannot function as usual.
How is Sleep Paralysis Treated?
Treatments for sleep paralysis generally involve treating the condition underlying the paralysis. This means seeing a doctor about treating sleep apnea, migraines, anxiety, or narcolepsy. If there is no underlying condition, then sleep deprivation itself must be treated.
Treating sleep deprivation can be complex. It usually helps to improve a patient’s sleep hygiene or the conditions under which they attempt to sleep. This treatment can include:
- Going to bed and rising at the same time every day
- Planning plenty of time for adequate sleep
- Making the bedroom as dark and as soundproof as possible
- Getting a comfortable and supportive mattress and pillow
- Exercising regularly
- Not eating heavy foods before bed
If these things do not help improve a person’s sleep, he or she should speak to a doctor about medication. While medication designed to help you sleep has many side effects, it can be a helpful, short-term way to improve rest and, thus, lower the number of times a person experiences sleep paralysis.
What are the Other Effects of Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is not a dangerous condition, but the panic that it causes can make a person afraid to sleep. If someone is so anxious about how they will wake up that they aren’t able to fall asleep or sleep deeply, it can disrupt their sleep routine and, ironically, make the whole problem worse.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to struggle with sleep paralysis. Once we treat the conditions that underlie it, the problem tends to disappear or get reduced to manageable levels.